Book Review – Early Years: The formative years of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson


Book review

Early Years: The formative years of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, as told by documents and archival data, 1902-1929, edited by Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin (JEM/Kehot Publication Society 2016)

Review by Rebecca Klempner

When a friend shares a story about this rebbe or that one over shalosh seudos or we hear a Chassidic tale during a drash in synagogue, we often listen to the details with skepticism. Any story told and retold over time gets affected by the uncertainty of memory. A recently-released book takes a more factual approach to Chassidic history. In Early Years: The formative years of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, as told by documents and archival data, 1902-1929, Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin assemble primary sources about the last Lubavitcher Rebbe’s youth. The result is a remarkable volume which will astonish and engross readers.

The number and variety of sources examined by Oberlander and Shmotkin is staggering. They include the memoirs of Rebbitzen Chana Schneerson, the mother of the Rebbe; the private correspondences of his relatives; photos; postcards; official documents; and more. “In some cases,” Oberlander and Shmotkin write, “the documentation substantiated previously-known events and encounters; in many others, it allowed us to correct erroneous information that was commonly believed to be true, or to bring new context – to shed a new light, and in others, it revealed facts that were hitherto totally unknown (Preface, p. x).”

Through the eyes of his contemporaries, we see Menachem Mendel as a small boy already engaged deeply in Torah learning, truly a prodigy, but simultaneously so drawn to science that he placed a model of the night sky on his bedroom ceiling. He fed the poor and comforted the sick as a teenager – and yet also engaged in games and larks with classmates.

Some mysteries get cleared up. The Rebbe never attended a formal Jewish school beyond cheder, nor did he ever attend a secular educational institution before his college years. How then did he obtain the extensive knowledge – in Torah and in science – for which he was renowned? Also, given his birth date, people were puzzled as to how he evaded conscription into the Soviet army. We get answers to all these questions and more.

One of the things Early Years best communicates is the diversity of the world in which the Rebbe grew up. Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine (now Dnepropetrovsk) – where the Rebbe spent most his childhood – was filled with Jews of all types, particularly as war and famine drove refugees into the city. Even his family contained secular and less-than-fully-observant members, and while his parents carefully nurtured the souls of young Menachem Mendel and his brothers, diligently teaching them Torah and fostering their fulfillment of mitzvos, they also didn’t isolate their children from those who were far from these activities.

Many Torah greats of the Rebbe’s generation were born and raised in shtetlach with a more homogenous and insular population. Perhaps his more cosmopolitan upbringing contributed to his welcoming attitudes towards less-observant Jews?

We also gain insight from images of the Rebbe as a devoted chassid. We observe, through diaries and letters, a young Menachem Mendel developing a relationship with the Rebbe Rayatz, who would eventually be his father-in-law. During this period, the Rebbe became more and more integral to the running of the movement, using his immense talents and skills to expand Chabad and protect Jews living under Soviet oppression. Touching notes, sometimes shown in the writer’s own handwriting, demonstrate the genuine affection between major personalities in the history of Chabad.

Also, of personal interest, we learn about major female figures in Chabad. The movement has long been notable for the more public role of women in the Chassidus relative to other types of Chassidim. To see the delight of the Rebbe Rashab over his granddaughter’s birth; to learn the extent of Rebbitzen Chana’s activities assisting the poor, ill, and displaced members of her community; and to examine the power of attorney the Rebbe Rayatz assigned to a young Chaya Mushka when he went into internal exile is to see that women within Chabad were seen as valuable, capable, and reliable. Again, the reader gets a sense that the Rebbe’s later attitudes – in this case, regarding women – likely emerged from his family background.

All in all, Oberlander and Shmotkin’s accomplishment is impressive. Their thorough documentation of the Rebbe’s early life creates a dynamic picture which both humanizes him and makes his later accomplishments all the more astounding. This well-organized and stunning volume – which contains many pages of photographs and personal notes – makes a wonderful gift for those interested in Jewish history as well as for library and school collections.